Conceptual representations are at the heart of our mental lives, involved in every aspect of cognitive functioning. Despite their centrality, a long-standing debate persists as to how the meanings of concepts are represented and processed. Many accounts agree that the meanings of concrete concepts are represented by their individual features, but disagree about the importance of different feature-based variables: some views stress the importance of the information carried by distinctive features in conceptual processing, others the features which are shared over many concepts, and still others the extent to which features co-occur. We suggest that previously disparate theoretical positions and experimental findings can be unified by an account which claims that task demands determine how concepts are processed in addition to the effects of feature distinctiveness and co-occurrence. We tested these predictions in a basic-level naming task which relies on distinctive feature information (Experiment 1) and a domain decision task which relies on shared feature information (Experiment 2). Both used large-scale regression designs with the same visual objects, and mixed-effects models incorporating participant, session, stimulus-related and feature statistic variables to model the performance. We found that concepts with relatively more distinctive and more highly correlated distinctive relative to shared features facilitated basic-level naming latencies, while concepts with relatively more shared and more highly correlated shared relative to distinctive features speeded domain decisions. These findings demonstrate that the feature statistics of distinctiveness (shared vs. distinctive) and correlational strength, as well as the task demands, determine how concept meaning is processed in the conceptual system.
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